Introduction to the Stone Soup Project Mini-Course

This is the first installment of an online mini-course about social science research methods relevant to the Stone Soup Dispute Resolution Knowledge Project.  When considering whether to develop a database, some people expressed concerns about the value and validity of the case reports we contemplated.  I think that some of these concerns were based on misconceptions, so I am writing this series of posts to address these issues and stimulate creative thinking about the possibilities for this project.

This mini-course is particularly relevant for faculty who will use a Stone Soup assignment or activity this coming year.   Here’s a list of this inaugural cohort of Stone Soup innovators.  If you want to join this group, please email me this form to let me know in what course(s) you will do this.  To be included in that list, you don’t need to decide right now exactly how you plan to do this, only that you plan to do so.  And even if you don’t decide right now,  you can still decide anytime while you are planning your course.

Some people said that they won’t be able to use a Stone Soup assignment or activity next year, but may be able to do so after that.  This mini-course would also be relevant if you might be in this category.  And it should be of interest generally to anyone who wants to understand more about social science and how academics and practitioners can contribute to a better understanding of our field.

What’s The Problem?

As I have worked on this project, I became increasingly aware of serious problems that we take for granted in our teaching, research, and work lives generally.  Here are some of them.

The Elephant and the Village.  We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are talking about the same thing.  For example, we use the word “negotiation” as if it was a single clear concept.  But it’s not.  The same with mediation.  And lots of other concepts.  We’re not just seven blind people all saying that our definitions are the correct ones – we’re a whole village.

Glasses Colored By Our Ideals.  Many of us are interested in dispute resolution because of the admirable goal of improving people’s lives.  We develop strong ideas about what DR activities do and don’t advance our goals, often with mixed evidence, if that.  Being human, we are subject to the same cognitive biases as everyone else, such as selectively perceiving things to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs.

Misconceptions About Social Science.  Many people wrongly assume that empirical research can solve theoretical and practical problems.  I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, “Let’s do a study,” as if that would tell us how to achieve our goals.  Many people are seduced by numbers.  They assume that if you do a study with a large sample and generate numerical results, that will produce good, objective, valid data – and useful, generalizable truths.  They think that doing small-sample qualitative research is just too subjective to be valid or useful.  In a word, that’s hogwash.

In fact, both methods have advantages and disadvantages. Quantitative methods are especially valuable in providing population estimates and testing hypotheses. Given the incredible range of contextual variables that can affect DR processes, quantitative methods have less value in analyzing dispute resolution than many other subjects. Qualitative methods are not designed to make broad generalizations but are very helpful in generating new discoveries and insights that can be tested with further study.  These methods are not mutually exclusive and you can really increase your understanding by using both methods in combination.

Parallel WorldsTamara Relis’s extraordinary qualitative case study research describes “parallel worlds” of lawyers and parties in medical malpractice cases.  “[N]otwithstanding any needs or desires for monetary compensation, plaintiffs’ objectives of obtaining admissions of fault, prevention of recurrences, retribution for defendant conduct, answers, apologies and acknowledgments of harm remained invisible to virtually all lawyers throughout the duration of the processing of their cases.”  Much like the lawyers and parties in Relis’s study, academics and practitioners often seem to occupy parallel worlds, perceiving the “elephant” of dispute resolution in sharply different ways.

The World Isn’t What it Used to Be.  We often teach our students the canon of dispute resolution as if the world and DR wasn’t changing.  As Noam Ebner has helpfully pointed out, that is so wrong.  Of course, we should draw lessons from our predecessors’ wisdom.  We also need to go beyond the past understandings to get deeper insights about how the world works and what people can do to make it better.

Stress, Alienation, and Not Much Fun.  Much of the fun has been wrung out of the lives of students, academics, and practitioners.  US law students live in a bizarre pedagogical world dominated by an archaic teaching method and are often graded solely based on an exam at the end of a semester.  Although the situation generally is better in DR courses, there’s definitely room for improvement.

Law school faculty teach students in this environment and are constantly pressed to “produce,” i.e., generate law review articles.  My colleague, Frank Bowman, wrote a wonderful piece documenting the crazy arms race of publication that yields few articles of practical value.  Many practitioners live in a high-pressure competitive world in which results are almost all that counts.  Enjoying learning seems like a quaint relic of the past.

Leaving Knowledge “on the Table.”  Negotiation theorists talk about inefficient negotiations that leave “value on the table.”  Similarly, academics leave knowledge on the table by failing to take advantage of learning opportunities from the activities that we regularly engage in.  The original idea for the Stone Soup Project was that since faculty require students to do certain assignments, we could create more knowledge by creating course assignments for students to interview practitioners about actual cases.

We can also take advantage of other opportunities that are in plain sight.  Students, academics, and practitioners regularly participate in competitions which are designed to educate the particular competitors.  But we don’t take advantage of opportunities to learn about the parallel worlds of academics and practitioners by analyzing the similarities and differences in their assessments of the competition performances.  Similarly, academics often give presentations to practitioners at continuing education programs but don’t use the programs to systematically assess practitioners’ views.

Always So Busy.  Do you know Harry Chapin’s haunting song, The Cat’s in the Cradle?  Here are some of the lyrics:

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, dad; come on, let’s play
Can you teach me to throw?”
I said, “Not today, I got a lot to do.”
He said, “That’s okay.”
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him.”

I’ve long since retired, and my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me


Not surprisingly, friends and colleagues in our DR community are just like Chapin’s grown-ups.  We are deans and former deans, associate deans, program directors, and academics pursuing our research agendas and taking care of our families.  The further along we are in our careers, the less time and motivation we generally have to innovate and have fun.

Vision for the Stone Soup Project

I imagine a global collaboration of lifelong learning about dispute resolution.  This project has been developed by American law professors but we hope that people in other countries and disciplines will adapt the ideas to fit their situations and join in this adventure.

US law schools (and perhaps other institutions) generally will have to do more with less because of declining enrollments and reduced public financial support.  The Stone Soup Project, which generally requires no out-of-pocket expense, can help.

Just as my friend, the choral director, and his students “make music” when they rehearse and perform, people in our DR world can consciously create knowledge together in our regular activities.  This now happens in our classes to varying extents.   With some planning and cooperation, we can create more and increasingly useful knowledge.

This starts with using schools as laboratories of new learning by engaging practitioners in interviews, focus group classes, and student competitions.  Continuing education programs for practitioners also can provide new opportunities for learning.  Rather than leaving a lot of knowledge on the table, we can systematically collect it and feed it back to students and practitioners.  For example, after a student competition, students, academics, and practitioners who served as judges can jointly analyze aspects of the performances.  This might take place on the same day as a competition or at a later date.

Hopefully, the Stone Soup Project will promote new scholarship.  Although academics may not directly use students’ assignments and activities as data in publications, this project may generate ideas and insights that academics can incorporate in their scholarship.  Academics may decide to use students’ assignments as data for publication, along the lines of the original database idea.  And academics may be inspired to interview practitioners or conduct other empirical research themselves, possibly collaborating with colleagues in other disciplines and parts of the world.

As part of this project, we will encourage faculty using Stone Soup assignments or activities to exchange ideas with each other.  This is a major purpose of listing the initial cohort of faculty on Friday.  We also plan to survey Stone Soup colleagues about their experiences and suggestions to share within our community.

We are focused on qualitative research about actual cases (or at least actual simulation performances).  Unfortunately, the concepts in our field often are more confusing than clarifying, so using plain-English descriptions of actual performances may be particularly helpful in producing valuable insights and learning.

These represent some possibilities for the Stone Soup Project.  How well we achieve them will depend on the level of motivation, creativity, and collaboration within our community.

Plans for the Stone Soup Mini-Course

In the coming weeks, I will write a series of posts to help faculty plan Stone Soup assignments and activities for next year.  This free online course has relatively short readings, no exams, and NO GRADING.

The following topics are about using Stone Soup for research.  I am taking a break from this mini-course and may come back to discuss these topics later.

  • Short course in social science research methods relevant to DR
  • Advice about whether IRB review is needed and dealing with IRBs
  • Writing useful – possibly brief – summaries of evidence collected
  • How research products can be used in teaching and research
  • Potential for developing shared research agenda by academics and/or professional organizations


2 thoughts on “Introduction to the Stone Soup Project Mini-Course”

  1. Thanks so much for this John. I’m following this very interesting discussion with interest. Reading your list of reasons (problems) above, I’d like to offer an addition to the list. The power and influence of storytelling. In the legal world this is often undervalued but is central to learning, leadership and change management in other cultures and sectors. Stories are inherently qualitative and the beauty lies in the ways that each of us can take our own learning from the story. I was reminded of this (again) through Tenneson Wolfe’s blog post this morning:

    I love your idea of collecting stories of actual negotiations. This is hugely valuable. We need empirical research and more data in the field but we can’t forget the power of the story. Both can live side by side and inform each other.

    Thanks for your inspiring work.

  2. Thanks very much for your kind words, Kari.

    I completely agree with you about the value of storytelling. People tell stories all our lives, starting from when we are very young. It’s how many people understand the world. DR practitioners work with people’s competing stories.

    In my experience, students often relate better to stories than to abstract doctrine and theory. I haven’t been wild about most of the theoretical papers that students wrote in my classes. I think that they generally can do much better learning and reporting stories – which they can then use for analysis. Eliciting and constructing stories as accurately as possible is a key skill of many DR professionals, especially lawyers and mediators.

    Although most Stone Soup faculty probably will use students’ stories solely for teaching and not research (especially in this inaugural year), I believe that their accounts can be the basis of valid research, as I will describe in this mini-course.

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